Sunday, July 27, 2008


In order to discover more about what we are, we explore what we are not. Superheroes are more than just action figures or the daydreams of a boy failing math class. They are extrapolations of our selves. Each superhero is a facet of humanity with the volume turned up. It is not just about imagining superpowers. It’s about imagining what each of us would do with superpowers.

There is a psychological significance behind this distraction that virtually everyone must count among his guilty pleasures. Yet, whatever significance might be found in the superhero landscape, culminates in Batman. In the pantheon of caped and un-caped crusaders, he stands alone as the penultimate superhero. Put simply, Batman is the best.

In order to establish his position in the hierarchy, it is necessary to use other superheroes in contrast. Superman and Spiderman will serve this purpose. Even though they fall short of Batman, they are both assumed by most to at least be the closest contenders.

The acquisition of the superpower helps define each hero. Superman was born with it. Spiderman was afflicted with it. Neither involved a choice. In both cases (and many other cases), the power simply “happens” to the subject through chance or carelessness, reducing the primary choice to simply choosing to become good or evil. Once that choice is made, no real internal dilemma remains.

Batman, however, achieved his superpower. He was not born with it. He was not afflicted with it. He earned it. And so his choices become much more complicated, because he must not only decide between good and evil, but also whether or not he will even keep his power at all. Superman can’t stop being Superman. Peter Parker may abandon the image of Spider Man, but his power remains. Batman has the power over whether or not he even has power and this makes him a much more complex character.

Since Superman and Spiderman always have their superpower, they are both automatically prepared, which requires less forethought. Batman must plan. He must scheme. He must think ahead, taking into account the time necessary to become the powerful version of himself.

Since his power is not an inheritance or an infection, Batman could easily fall into the snare of pride. Someone who has actually fashioned anything “super” about himself, might become less superhero and more superficial. Yet, Batman hides his identity (far better than Superman) and seeks an anonymity that speaks of humility. Although Superman and Spiderman both have their own lesser versions of such, Peter Parker is easy fodder for news hounds, his secret constantly precarious. Superman gladly accepted the title “Super” without blinking. Although he does hide inside the identity of Clark Kent, the ingenious idea of disguising himself with a pair of glasses is something that only flies in comic books. Batman actively pursues a secrecy that he protects with the stealth of a Navy Seal. He has even proven himself willing to lose all glory and to defame his image in order to do what is best for Gotham. Batman will resort to being thought of the bad guy in order to be the good guy.

Like a reflection, the villains who oppose our superheroes speak a great deal about them. Batman faces the best villains. When it comes to bad guys, no one would be able to hold up Lex Luthor or Doc Oc against The Penguin, or Catwoman, or the Riddler, or the Joker. The Joker in particular is the definitive antagonist, making the rest (even someone as iconic as Darth Vader) seem at best suited for Nickelodeon. Practically any Batman villain could stand alone as a self-contained story. The depth of the bad guy certainly helps reveal the depth of the good guy.

Batman is flawed and it is his flaws that make him strong—in the sense of making him a character of depth. Superman and Spiderman both admittedly have their issues and chinks, but neither can match the darkness inside the Dark Knight. The great good that he aspires to is highlighted by the potential shadows in his head. He carries his kryptonite with him. Batman faces his flaws and strive to rise above them.

In fact, his very image is built on his greatest fear. Instead of locking away his kryptonite in a lead box for the equivalent of Lex Luthor to unveil in some future plot, Batman is the first one to take on his greatest fear and use it. And so he is defined by his fear and his ability to control it.

Possibly one of the strongest reasons Batman is the best superhero is he is the easiest one to translate into something very close to reality. He’s the most realistic of the bunch. Despite the campy legacy of Adam West and Burton’s almost Seuss-like surrealism, the basic thrill of the whole thing is that Batman, to some extent, could actually happen. And Christopher Nolan has made the barrier between fiction and reality even thinner in his recent films. In contrast, no matter how much character development is invested in Superman, he is still just an alien in tights. No matter how much Peter Parker is fleshed out, he is still a borderline cartoon, stuck in adolescent infatuation with M.J., barely one step above the trials of Archie and Jughead. Regardless of Hollywood’s best efforts to make the characters edgy or smart, Superman and Spiderman still have the tell-tale stains of comic book ink.

Bruce Wayne did not come from another planet. Bruce Wayne was not accosted by an exotic arachnid. He is just an ordinary man. Some argue that he merely uses his extreme wealth to buy his power and this makes him far from ordinary. However, this in itself is admirable, because he chooses to use his money to serve others rather than lounging in excess living.

Batman is just a man. His superpower is achieved through discipline and compassion. It’s not just the money. It’s what he chooses to do with the money. And all of us have at least some power in that respect. And if discipline and compassion and a certain amount of money are the real forces behind Batman, then that means all of us can for brief moments be someone very much like a superhero. All of us are capable of doing what Batman does to some extent. So when it comes right down to it, the thing about Batman that makes him the best, is that he is so ordinary.


abbie said...

But that's exactly it- he doesn't have a superpower. He can fight and spend his money all he wants on gadgets that make him look "super" but he has no actual power. Therefore he cannot even be included in the best superhero debate because he isn't one.

And I can't believe you slammed Vader.

David said...

i have to agree with abbie, i'm afraid. he's not a super.

also, i didn't think i'd ever really disagree with bret on something so fundamental as superhero supremacy... but batman's definitely not the best. and i'll go one step further, i'll say he's not even the best of the non-super superheroes.

i think that where batman shines in gadgetry he is far surpassed by iron man, the master of technology, no matter how you split the hairs. where's bruce wayne's nuclear powered ship, and custom built guidance systems, and compact high powered lasers? not to mention flying suit? (not counting batman beyond, clearly, because that was a spinoff, and also not bruce wayne)...

and where batman beams in athletic prowess, the use of military grade weapons and real life science tools, and even character darkness, depth, and believability, he's utterly ECLIPSED by the punisher...!

and where it comes to smoke and mirrors and the use of theatrics for intimidation and distraction he's always going to be in doc strange's shadow (old doc strange, where he was a magician using parlor tricks to fight crime, not new doc strange which is actually a wizard).

yes, he's well rounded, and this makes him decent if you're a one-hero fanboy, but, like all dc characters, his biggest flaw is that he should have one major strong suit but they attempt to make him a jack of all trades (not a master of one, which is much harder to write and keep interesting), and therefore he doesn't even have his own shtick. is he a martial artist super hero? is he a professional wheelman? a ninja? a gadgeteer? he can't seem to make up his mind WHAT he is, and tries to be them all simultaneously, without ever explaining why he's even good at some of the things he's good at, just making him automatically good at everything, and that is not brilliance in writing, that's laziness...

he's an acrobat? a computer programming? a chemist? a police negotiator? a cat burgler? a pole-vaulter? a master hang-glider? a stunt driver? a blackbelt in 20 different fighting styles? a lockpick? a forensic analyst? a psychologist? a tailor and leatherworker? a blacksmith and a cobbler? a handwriting analyst, a cryptographer, a prophet and magic healer (in the rhaz chronicles), a pilot, a submariner, a scuba-diver, a traceur, bow-hunter, discus throwing champ, demolitions expert, network administrator, archaeologist, sociologist, hacker, business mogul and playboy, all in one...?

yeah, that's believable... and for the record, he could save himself 35 years in training for all those martial arts style he knows and the batarang throwing if he'd just carry a sidearm. sheesh...

batman ftl